The Journal of Effective Teaching
an online journal devoted to teaching excellence


Journal of Effective Teaching, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2002

Stack the Deck in Favor of Your Students by Using the Four Aces of Effective Teaching 

Sean M. Bulger
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Department of Kinesiology and Athletics
Eau Claire, WI 54702
Phone (715) 836-3722
FAX (715) 836-4074

 Derek J. Mohr
Appalachian State University
Department of Health, Leisure, and Exercise Science
Boone, NC 28608
Phone (828) 262-3143
FAX (828) 262-3138

 Richard T. Walls
West Virginia University
College of Resources and Education - Research and Training Center
Morgantown, WV 26506
Phone (304) 293-5313 ext. 1874

 Key Words: Outcomes, Clarity, Engagement, and Enthusiasm


 The research on teacher effectiveness has provided educational professionals with a relatively clear understanding of the fundamental principles for effective instructional practice. Teaching professors should use these empirically supported principles as a basis for the determination of their own instructional effectiveness in the classroom. The purpose of this article is to describe the Four Aces of Effective Teaching (Outcomes, Clarity, Enthusiasm, and Engagement) as a conceptual framework for increased self-reflective practice among teachers in higher education settings. 


If you had to select four instructional principles that best describe your teaching, what would they be? How do the instructional principles that you have identified contribute to student learning in your classroom? What strategies do you employ to systematically implement these instructional principles in a variety of educational contexts? 

The types of self-reflective questions listed above provide the basis for the continual refinement of an individual's instructional practices. As a teaching professor, you should be willing to engage in the rigorous self-examination of your own teaching philosophy, methodology, and effectiveness. The purpose of this article is to describe the "Four Aces of Effective Teaching" (Walls, 1999) as a conceptual framework for increased self-reflective practice among teachers in higher education settings [7]. Following the completion of this article, the reader will be able (a) to explain the theoretical rationale for the Four Aces of Effective Teaching, (b) to describe the Four Aces of Effective Teaching, and (c) to provide suggestions for the application of these fundamental instructional principles to teaching practice. 

Research on Teacher Effectiveness 

 Teaching effectiveness is dependent upon the interaction between the instructor's subject-matter knowledge and teaching (pedagogical) ability.  The following scenarios illustrate the nature of the complex interaction between these two critical variables:  

1.      An individual may possess a substantial amount of subject-matter knowledge, yet be unable to design and implement instructional methods to enhance student learning due to a lack of pedagogical ability. 

2.      Conversely, an individual may possess some generic pedagogical skills, yet have limited subject-matter knowledge and again be predisposed to ineffective teaching.   

These scenarios indicate that it is impossible to be an effective teacher without being competent in both subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical ability. Consequently, subject-matter knowledge remains a necessary prerequisite for effective teaching, not the sole determinant.   

Teachers, instructors, and professors are required to fulfill many roles and perform many duties that may be considered ancillary. At the core of the roles and duties is the actual practice of teaching. The primary purpose of this teaching practice is to facilitate student learning. Learning may be defined as a change in behaviors, attitudes, or capabilities.  Effective teachers promote student learning, and related instructional methods have been extensively documented in the educational research literature. 

The research literature on "teacher effectiveness" and reviews written summarizing that body of research provide guidance (e.g., Brophy & Good, 1986 [1]; Dunkin & Doenau, 1980 [2]; Fisher, Berliner, Filby, Marliave, Cahen, & Dishaw, 1980 [3]; Rosenshine & Furst, 1973 [4]; Smith, 1979 [5]; Walls, 1994 [6]). The findings are based on "process-product" research. In other words, when a teacher does this (process), it results in this sort of student achievement (product). When a teacher causes this to happen (process), it results in student learning (product). Rosenshine and Furst (1973) wrote the first major review of this research literature [4]. They concluded that the five most important teacher-effectiveness variables are (a) Clarity, (b) Variability, (c) Enthusiasm, (d) Task-oriented and/or Businesslike Behaviors, and (e) Student Opportunity to Learn Criterion Material. Brophy and Good (1986) [1] wrote a major review of the literature to that date, finding strong support for the components of effective teaching identified by Rosenshine and Furst (1973) [4] but summarizing the strong elements under different headings. They also found increased support for such process variables as "time on task." Walls (1994) was not so parsimonius, listing 99 process-product relationships for effective teaching [6]. 

The Four Aces of Effective Teaching 

The "Four Aces of Effective Teaching" (Walls, 1999) summarize the most prevalent recommendations from the teaching-effectiveness research literature [7]. They are the strongest links between what teachers can do and the learning that students achieve. The Four Aces represent a consolidated way of thinking about the "process" of teaching as it influences the "product" (student learning). You may think of them as catalysts for learning. Student learning is better, faster, and/or more long-lasting when teachers are able to play the Four Aces. The Four Aces of Effective Teaching are summarized in Figure 1

Ace 1: Outcomes  

The first Ace of Effective Teaching concerns the utilization of an outcomes-based instructional orientation. Outcomes enable students to focus their attention on clear learning goals. These outcomes inform students of where they are going and how they will get there. Outcomes also provide the teacher with a framework for designing and delivering the course content. Furthermore, outcomes enable teachers to assess student learning as a measure of their own instructional effectiveness. More effective teachers use designated outcomes as a basis for the establishment of curricular alignment. Curricular alignment is the degree to which the employed instructional methods and assessment techniques enable the student to acquire and/or demonstrate the desired outcomes.  

What were the desired student outcomes for your last class meeting? Were the outcomes directly stated or implied? What did your students actually learn, and how was that learning documented? Did the employed instructional strategies effectively contribute to each student’s ability to accomplish the stated outcomes? 

Ace 2: Clarity 

The second Ace of Effective Teaching involves the clarity of instruction. More effective teachers typically provide students with highly explicit directions and explanations concerning the course organization and content. When delivering instruction, nothing should be left to chance. If students are not meeting your expectations, your methods of delivery may lack the required degree of clarity. When a teacher tells, shows, and makes the message available from alternate perspectives to alternate senses, that teacher is engaged in effective instructional practice. Additionally, the course should be structured in a way that affords students the opportunity to make connections between the new material that is being presented and the concepts that they have already learned. This instructional strategy is referred to as curricular scaffolding. When a teacher helps students connect new information with what they already know, the teacher is assisting these students in accurate organization of information.  

During your last class meeting, what instructional techniques did you employ to provide the students with a clear explanation of the lesson content? What types of illustrations, demonstrations, heuristics, and the like were used to supplement and clarify verbal explanation? Were there any concepts and/or skills that you were able to incorporate from previous lessons and courses? Did you allocate sufficient time for your students to ask questions so that you could clarify information? Did you make complex subject matter clear and easy to learn? 

Ace 3: Engagement 

The third Ace of Effective Teaching is engagement. This principle suggests that students learn by doing. The formal lecture represents an archaic model defined by instructor as deliverer and student as receiver. This model exemplifies one-way communication and perpetuates an incomplete model of education. Accordingly, teachers must create a dynamic, educational environment that affords students the opportunity to practice every concept that they are learning. More effective teachers utilize instructional strategies that engage students repeatedly throughout the entire lesson. This engagement should begin early in the lesson and continue throughout the lesson introduction, body, and closure. As a general rule, a teacher should limit a lecture to no more than thirty minutes before employing a learning activity that actively engages all students (Walls & Cather, 1987) [8]. Furthermore, these engagement activities are intended to facilitate the development of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will enable the student to accomplish the previously identified lesson outcomes. This type of curricular alignment is a critical component of an effective, student-centered learning environment.  

In your last class, how much time were your students engaged in learning activities other than note taking? On how many occasions during your last class did students have the opportunity to be actively engaged in the learning process? How many of your students are asleep or off-task at any point in a given lesson? 

Ace 4: Enthusiasm 

The fourth Ace of Effective Teaching is enthusiasm. As straightforward as it may seem, "if you hate to teach it, your students will hate to learn it.” Conversely, if you love to teach it, your students may very well love to learn it. Enthusiasm is contagious. More effective teachers display a high level of enthusiasm that reflects their professional competence and confidence. These characteristics are derived from the individual teacher’s subject matter knowledge and instructional experience. Teachers can begin to establish a positive learning environment by showing their passion for the subject matter, using student names, reinforcing student participation during class, and being active in moving among the students. The most critical component for fostering classroom enthusiasm, however, is student success. Accordingly, it is the teacher's responsibility to establish a classroom environment that allows for a high degree of student achievement. Ultimately, high levels of student achievement serve as a powerful motivator for both student and teacher.  

Were your students excited about attending your last class? Were you excited about teaching your last class? What have you done to effectively communicate your passion for the subject matter that you teach to your students? What strategies do you employ to stay current in your field of study and communicate your excitement about new developments? How have your past teaching, research, and service been used to positively impact the teaching-learning environment for your students? 

Sample Lesson 

In order to optimize student learning, teachers should plan to integrate the Four Aces of Effective Teaching throughout each lesson. The following sections describe the components of an effective lesson, the purpose of each component, and respective strategies for the practical application of the Four Aces of Effective Teaching. 

Instant Activity  

An instant activity is an educational intervention that is used to engage students immediately upon entering the classroom. An instant activity can serve as a review of previous course material, a preview of upcoming information, and a management technique for organizing the class. An instant activity can be used with individuals, small groups, or an entire class. To achieve success with an instant activity, the tasks should be clear, simple, and based on students’ prior knowledge and/or skills. For example, the teacher could engage students as they enter class by (a) asking the students to formulate questions based on the assigned readings for that class period and having peers answer them, (b) administering an informal pre-test on the lesson's key concepts, (c) allowing students to work in small groups to answer teacher-directed questions that have been written on the board, or (d) encouraging students to reflect on their own personal experiences regarding the day's topic as a catalyst for in-class discussion and subsequent learning of subject matter to be introduced. 

Lesson Objectives  

After the students complete an instant activity, the teacher should present the students with daily objectives (outcomes). The central concept is to specify these objectives in terms of student performance. These outcomes inform students of what they should know or be able to do at the completion of the lesson. Teachers can subsequently assess student achievement of the stated objectives as an indicator of student learning and their own instructional effectiveness. For daily objectives to be utilized effectively, they should be clear, measurable, and directly related to the desired course competencies. For example, following a lesson on cardiovascular fitness, the students in a health promotion course may be required (a) to define cardiovascular fitness, (b) to identify the body's physiological response to exercise and the associated health-related benefits, and (c) to design an exercise program to enhance a patient's cardiovascular fitness. In another example, following a lesson on buoyancy, students in a physics course may be required: (a) to define Archimedes principle, (b) to solve a problem involving buoyancy, (c) to make an object that floats, and (d) to discuss the effects of water displacement on boat design. 

Advance Organizer 

An advance organizer can be a topical outline, diagram, or concept map that has the primary purpose of providing a coherent structure for the presentation of the involved instructional material. An effective advance organizer clarifies the scope and sequence of a lesson for the teacher and student by providing an overview of the lesson content. Accordingly, an advance organizer assists students in structuring their thinking, class notes, and out-of-class study. A lesson on stress management, for example, may include the following sequentially arranged components: (a) definition of stress, (b) physiological response of the human body to stress, (c) causes of stress, and (d) effective stress management techniques. In another example, a statistics teacher might present a diagram to represent the types of graphing techniques that will be discussed during the lesson and the amount of time that will be allocated to each technique (see Figure 2).  

Lesson Body  

The lesson body typically represents the major portion of the lesson where the teacher provides information to the students and assists in their construction of functional knowledge structures. Traditionally, the lesson body is constituted by a lecture or lecture-discussion format. More effective teachers use the Four Aces of Effective Teaching during the lesson body. During this time, information should be presented enthusiastically and clearly. Furthermore, the lesson should build upon students' prior knowledge and actively engage the students repeatedly. In addition, the material presented and the assigned activities should serve as a means for students to achieve the daily lesson objectives (outcomes). To accomplish this, teachers should design learning activities and distribute them throughout the lesson body. For example, a teacher may have students (a) write a question that others answer, (b) assemble slips of paper to construct a sentence or a story outline, (c) draw a graph of a phenomenon from memory, (d) speculate about effects of recycling, (e) circle words on a worksheet, (f) locate Disney on the Internet, (g) discuss Hamlet's dilemma, (h) build a mutual fund, (i) tell each other messages about a ball's trajectory with their backs turned to each other, (j) brainstorm provisions for a treaty, and (k) about 500 other ideas. 

Lesson Closure  

A closure should bring your lesson full circle. Although a closure is considered a necessary part of an effective lesson, many teachers may sacrifice this portion of the lesson due to time constraints. A closure, however, is a vital part of an effective lesson and can serve as the time to reiterate the lesson objectives, clarify the organization of the lesson, summarize the lesson body, check for student understanding, and preview the upcoming lesson. Most importantly, a closure can maximize student engagement time through the use of a variety of reflective activities. Your students should engage in an effective closure on a daily basis. For example, after reviewing the key points of a lesson on cultural diversity and communication skills in the workplace, the teacher can engage the students in a reflective activity by requiring them to list three strategies for improving their own communication skills in a culturally diverse work environment.  

The preceding illustration of a sample lesson represents one systematic approach for integrating the Four Aces of Effective Teaching into educational practice. Only your imagination and commitment to your students limit the possibilities of how you might employ these principles. 

The Final Hand 

A teacher's primary responsibility is to facilitate learning. The research literature on teacher effectiveness gives excellent guidance for doing the job of teaching well. The Four Aces of Effective Teaching (outcomes, clarity, engagement, and enthusiasm) assist in bringing order out of potential chaos. The aces represent principles that, when systematically implemented, can enhance student learning and be used as a vehicle for continual self-examination to improve your instructional effectiveness. The basic tenets of the Four Aces of Effective Teaching should be stock items in the arsenal of conscientious objectors to bad education. Therefore, if you fancy yourself a student advocate who does not want to gamble with instructional practice and student learning, then bet on a sure thing and stack the deck in favor of your students by utilizing the Four Aces of Effective Teaching.  

Can you find and mark examples of the components of an effective lesson in this article? Can you find and mark examples of the Four Aces of Effective Teaching in this article? Can you explain the Four Aces of Effective Teaching to a colleague? Can you design a new lesson or redesign a previous lesson using the instructional and organizational principles described in this article? 


Brophy, J., & Good, T.L. (1986). Teacher behavior and student achievement. In M.C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan. [R] 

Dunkin, M., & Doneau, S. (1980). A replication study of unique and joint contributors to variance in student achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 394-403. [R] 

Fisher, C.W., Berliner, D.C., Filby, N.N., Marliave, R., Cahen, L.S., & Dishaw, M.M. (1980). Teaching behaviors, academic learning time, and student achievement: An overview. In C. Denham & A. Lieberman (Eds.), Time to learn. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Education. [R] 

Rosenshine, B., & Furst, N. (1973). Research on teacher performance criteria. In B.O. Smith (Ed.), Research in teacher education: A symposium. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. [R] 

Smith, L. (1979). Task-oriented lessons and student achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 73, 16-19. [R] 

Walls, R.T. (1994). Concepts of learning: 99 truths. In Federal Emergency Management Agency (Ed.), Instructor one. Emmitsburg, MD: National Emergency Training Center. [R] 

Walls, R.T. (1999). Psychological foundations of learning. Morgantown, WV: WVU International Center for Disability Information. [R] 

Walls, R.T., & Cather, W.L. (1987). Principles of instruction. Emittsburg, MD: National Emergency Training Center. [R]  

Figure 1. The Four Aces of Effective Teaching [R]


 Figure 2. Advance Organizer for Statistics Class on Graphing [R]